When people talk about finding their “voice” in their writing I cringe because I used to have a voice. It’s gone now but I’m working on getting it back.
I used to be a very prolific writer. Not just a prolific one, actually, but a prolific public writer. I would publish fanfics, essays, theories, I wrote novels, short stories, poems, and TV show scripts and posted them all online for free in open defiance of humanity and without much more than a cursory amount of fear. Until one day I stopped.
All throughout high school and college I was praised for having a very unique writing voice and also being a decent writer so it might shock you that I’ve pretty much never viewed myself that way, and I feel like this body of work (this blog of haphazard self indulgences I should say) proves that I don’t have the chops to be a real writer anyway. The thing is that didn’t bother me until I took a writing class in college.
Most things in life you can’t really pinpoint when they started. They’re a nebulous amount of variables that all coalesced eventually into a behavior or a feeling or a life goal. For me though, I know pretty much the exact date and time when I stopped publishing anything truly publicly and it was the writing class.
I was told I needed a writing class in order to fulfill a requirement for my degree and was coerced by an advisor to take an Honors College writing class. It sounded great to me because it had a focus on historical writings, a section of writing I’d never really considered before, and I wanted to expand my knowledge of everything. The course was mostly a generalized look at historical literature where we would mimic some of the styles as well as craft our own fiction pieces and create possible historical accounts. Pretty cool stuff.
The teacher had an extreme focus on producing a large quantity of content and also, strangely, not giving grades on anything until the end of the course. So we would write 10-20 pages of work (fiction and non-fiction) a week in varying assignments but instead of receiving letter grades we would get back sheets of paper with red ink notes on them. On top of this, once a week she would take someones paper (sans their name) and distribute that piece for critique to the class.
We had 16 weeks of class, and all but two weeks the writing chosen for those critiques was my writing (funny enough the first week was her writing, a fact I found out later). This close knit group of ten other students and myself would spend one quarter of class time, around thirty minutes, every week tearing my writing apart. And I do mean tearing it apart. Despite knowing someone in the class had written each piece, every week students laid in brutally to the logical issues, wording choices, grammatical mistakes, and tonal issues of each piece. Each and every one of my pieces.
Needless to say, I was devastated. I assumed this way her way of trying to shame me out of the class. After the second class I spent the entire break sitting in the bathroom crying, trying to figure out why I ever even tried at anything (typical overreaction from a teenager, I know, I was a delicate flower).
I went to see the teacher after that second week to ask how I could improve or why she was picking my papers and instead of telling me anything, she was cagey and non-committal. I probably should have dropped the class right then but I was too prideful and stuck the entire semester out. I suffered through some really brutally honest feedback, most of which left me crying after class and paralyzed by fear when I was writing for my other classes. I worried that I was a fraud who didn’t even belong at college. In the end, I got an A+ in the class and the teacher moved on to another college by the time I wanted to really talk to her about what she had put me through.
I’m sure she didn’t think much of it. I’m sure most people would just say I needed to get a thicker skin in order to be a writer anyway, but that’s not what happened.
Out of all the things that have come about because of this woman and this class, the worst was that it left me questioning if I could even string two sentences together. If I had ever had any idea what was even worth putting down on paper. I stopped writing fiction for almost two years after that. I could feel myself hesitating even when posting under anonymous names for years.
I understood, in the end, that logically that she was “picking on” my writing because she liked it and thought it had merit. Maybe in some attempt to push me or push the other writers to write like me? Which is quite an egotistical assumption on my part but to this day I still feel like any writing I release out into the world is going to result in the same feeling as sitting in a small circle with these people who were all (probably) smarter and better than me, pulling my thesis’ and my characters and ideas and my words apart and finding them, finding me, desperately lacking.
I don’t know how this one ends though. For the past year I’ve been trying to put more of my writing out and so far I feel like I’ve kept it fairly safe by only writing short essays or reviews or small stories about my life – things that people can’t tell me are wrong or tonally inconsistent because they’re “just opinions” or they’re my lived experiences.
With Nanowrimo coming up again I want to get out there with my fiction again. I want to submit pieces to magazines and publishers again that aren’t dry research pieces but at the end of the day I hear this woman’s voice in my head telling me to stick to non-fiction because I’m a good writer but I’m just not “very creative”.
I hate her voice and I hate that it lives in me. I want my voice back. Because it’s hard enough to live with my voice, but it’s so much worse to have to live with someone else’s too.